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What Is an English Sonnet?

Updated on September 4, 2019

Shakespeare Helped Make the English Sonnet Popular

This painting, ostensibly of Shakespeare, is from the National Portrait Gallery in London.
This painting, ostensibly of Shakespeare, is from the National Portrait Gallery in London. | Source

Overview of an English Sonnet

A sonnet—English, Shakespearean, or otherwise—is a classic form of poetry with fourteen lines, a specific rhyme scheme, and a relatively rigid thematic structure. The English sonnet is a specific type of sonnet, and it's also called the Elizabethan sonnet or the Shakespearean sonnet because it was made popular by poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Some poets continue to use the sonnet form to this day. If you need to write an English sonnet, follow the guidance on form, meter, rhyme and theme in this article.

History of the Sonnet

The first sonnet was developed by the Italian poet Petrarch in the 1300s. In the 1500s, the Italian sonnet was translated into English, but because English and Italian are different languages with different rhythms, the meter was changed to better accommodate the English language. Shakespeare wrote many English sonnets, some of which mocked the themes that appeared frequently in Petrarchan sonnets. It's a good idea to take a look at some classic English sonnets to get an idea of structure and form.

English Sonnet Rhyme Scheme & Sonnet Structure

The English sonnet rhyme scheme goes like this: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Each different letter represents a different rhyme in the last word of the line. This means that the rhymes alternate lines in each stanza and the final two lines rhyme. So, a poet will need seven sets of rhyming words to complete the fourteen lines. Take a look at English sonnet examples below to see this rhyme scheme in action.

To put the above a different way, using poetic terms: the English sonnet form has fourteen lines split up into three quatrains and a couplet. A quatrain is a stanza with four lines. (A stanza is comparable to a verse in a song—it's a set of lines that are considered a unit in a poem.) A couplet is a set of two rhyming lines of verse that are right next to each other.

Meter in an English Sonnet

Finally, an English sonnet typically has a strict meter and ten syllables per line. In the simplest terms, each line should have ten syllables that alternate between being unstressed and stressed.

The meter is called iambic pentameter. An "iamb" is a metrical "foot" consisting of one unstressed, or short, syllable and one stressed, or long, syllable. An iambic line has a rhythm like a heartbeat: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. (Of note: Even Shakespeare fudged the meter sometimes.)

In the word pentameter, "penta-" means five. So, a line of iambic pentameter has five iambs (remember, each iamb has two syllables, thus there are ten syllables per line). An example of iambic pentameter is the opening lines to the Declaration of Independence: "We HOLD these TRUTHS to BE self-EViDENT..."

Themes in English Sonnets

In a classic Shakespearian sonnet, the structure of the poem is intricately tied to the theme. The bulk of the poem—the first twelve lines—usually sets up the problem or theme of the poem. The final two lines—the couplet—acts as a kind of epiphany or surprise by resolving the problem or by seeing the theme in a new and interesting light. If you're reading this because you are learning how to write your own English sonnet make sure you consider what "change" might occur in the final lines of your poem.

Example Sonnet: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)

Here is an example of a classic English sonnet, written by Shakespeare himself. This is a particularly famous Shakespearean sonnet because it makes fun of typical themes in Petrarchan sonnets. He's cleverly mocking his contemporaries, tired of hearing poetic cliches comparing a lover's eyes to the sun or her red lips to coral.

The final two stanzas take the typical turn of an English sonnet, moving beyond the scope of the first twelve lines and offering a revelation.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Edna St. Vincent Millay often wrote sonnets.
Edna St. Vincent Millay often wrote sonnets. | Source

Another Sonnet Example: I shall forget you presently (Sonnet XI)

Looking for more modern English sonnet examples? Shakespeare wasn't the only one to write them! Edna St. Vincent Millay, a popular poet of the early 1900s, wrote poems in many different traditional forms. She often wrote about love or affairs, as she does here.

Notice the trademarks of a Shakespearean sonnet in this poem: fourteen lines, the abab rhyme structure, and the turn in the final couplet.

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,—
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

The Making of a Sonnet

The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology
The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology
Interest in learning more about sonnets or the history of sonnets? This is a comprehensive book about them, past and present, from poet Eavan Boland.


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